Judaism at the New York Times

The New York Times'' new Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, stepped into her new role this week -- or crashed into it, more aptly -- by publicly Tweeting solicitations to a couple out-and-out Israel bashers, telling one she''d "heard good things." Outrage, panic, talking points and damage control ensued, as any observer of Israel-related media might have supposed.


Forgetting the specifics of this incident, what came to my mind was Rudoren''s background, not as a reporter, but as a Jew. In and of itself, the fact that she''s Jewish means nothing. But considering that her predecessor, Ethan Bronner, is Jewish, and his before him, Deborah Sontag, is as well, a question has to be asked: Why does the New York Times consistently send Jewish journalists to head their central office in the Jewish State?


After all, the Times doesn''t consistently send Russian Americans to its Moscow bureau (where Ellen Barry is chief) or Mexican Americans to lead its Mexico City bureau (led by Randal Archibold, who, on the basis of his name I''ll venture to guess is not of Mexican descent). So why has the Times tapped Jewish journalists to head the Jerusalem bureau for at least the past 15 years?


To answer this question, you have to understand the New York Times'' own history with Judaism. The original owning family of the paper, the Ochs, was a Jewish one, of German Jewish descent. Like many German Jews, after the haskalah (the Jewish "enlightenment") and the emancipation of the Jews in Germany, both the Ochs and Sulzberger families assimilated.


Adolph Ochs, who bought the then-failing paper in 1896, married the daughter of America''s most prominent proponent of Reform Judaism. His only daughter married Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who later ran the paper, and bestowed his name and legacy onto the current publisher of the paper.


Both Ochs and Sulzberger subscribed to a form of Judaism called Classical Reform Judaism, which embraced Judaism as a form of worship and vehemently maintained that the Jews are not a nation. For Classical Reform Jews, Judaism was what you did in synagogue, not outside. While in the world, a man was not a Jew but an American (in this case) who simply happened to pray in a synagogue instead of a church. What did this mean for their view of Israel?


"America is our Zion. Here in the home of religious liberty, we have aided in founding of this new Zion, the fruition of the beginning laid in the old," read a resolution of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a mainstay of the Classical Reform movement.


The Ochs-Sulzberger clan embraced this view vociferously, with the great Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, worrying that ''''he would be criticized if he appointed a Jew as editor, since the ownership was in the hands of Jews,'''' a Times book review from 1999 states. Sulzberger went so far as to prohibit the use of the word "Jew" (as it denoted the national element of the people) except when absolutely necessary, Laurel Leff writes in an article in American Jewish History published in 2000.


So how does this explain the Times selecting Jewish journalists to head their Jerusalem bureau?


In choosing Jewish journalists to lead in Jerusalem, the Times is underlining the most fundamental belief of its owning family regarding Judaism: that a person just happens to be Jewish; that Jewishness determines nothing and is determined by nothing other than personal predilection. The selection of journalists "of Jewish background" affirms not just the belief that Jews are not different, but that they cannot be different.


It''s an impulse to wish away the family''s Judaism -- a wish that was finally realized when the current publisher''s father, "Punch" Sulzberger, converted to the Episcopal Church. But much more than this, it''s an express rejection of the most salient characteristic of the Jewish people: the chosenness, the uniqueness. (And given this, we might approximate the Sulzbergers'' attitudes and the Times'' view on Israel''s legitimacy as a state.)


It''s an irony, a kind of personal paradox, which only a deep internal rift could produce. But in the history of the Jews, and especially German Jews, it''s by no means uncommon: their own personal exemplariness clashing with a desire to keep their head down, to blend in, to almost disappear.


Judith Sulzberger, aunt to the current publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and daughter to Arthur Sulzberger (the one who wanted to keep the word "Jew" out of the paper) once said her father "probably would just as soon not have been Jewish."


And so he, his son and now his grandson would just as soon as not have reporters who could be identified for their Jewishness. And to prove it, they would send Jews to the Jewish State to report in a most un-Jewish way.



Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories.